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the column of lasting insignificance...
—for September 5, 2015 by John Wilcock

Manhattan Memories
Chapter Two (continued)

Chapter Two—Meeting Marlene
Steve Allen derides TV columnist
Marlene Dietrich: glamorous grandmother

What first got the Voice moving was an attack by Steve Allen on Hearst columnist Jack O'Brian, a bigoted television critic who had been sniping away in his Journal American column at Allen's “pinko” sympathies. Allen was sympathetic to the Voice having displayed on his program the first issue on his show (October 26, 1955). Now Steve wanted us to run his fiery reply to O'Brian's allegations and we were delighted to do so.

The article created a minor sensation on Madison Avenue. Television performers just weren't in the habit of replying to critics, particularly powerful reactionary ones still trading on the McCarthy-ite accusations of communism. Everybody in the industry rushed out to buy this hitherto obscure Greenwich Village weekly.

Despite this small blip in its fortunes, the Village Voice was still growing much too slowly. A couple of years after its inception and priced at a nickel, it was being bought by less than 5,000 people. In these days when every community and every faction has its own tabloid papers it's perhaps hard to visualize the day when, apart from the Voice, there were only the “straight” papers, meaning conventional dailies (in addition to the Times and Daily News, New York had half a dozen others) plus a few conventional weekly papers.

WHEN I HAD FIRST arrived in New York the best-known maverick publication seemed to be Dorothy Day's The Catholic Worker which a wild Irishman named Ammon Hennacy used to sell for one cent on street corners. (Accused one day of being a communist he said, “I'm worse than that, madame; I'm an anarchist”). The bearded poet (and later Fug) Tuli Kupferberg began self-publishing tiny booklets one of which, 1001 Ways to Live Without Working (“the most stolen book at the Paperback Gallery” ) sold 5,000 copies, and Paul Krassner eventually left Lyle Stuart's Independent to create The Realist which became the bible of every independent thinker.

100 Things to Do After the Revolution

9. Meditate
13, Teach something someone wants to know
21. Plant beans
22. Go live in the desert and meditate
30. Walk across England
31. Bicycle thru Germany
32. Call up your mother
47. Pet a dog or (cat)
55. Visit the moon
68. Laugh
72. Get lost in a strange city
77. Sit In a tree
83. Touch her toes
100. Talk to yourself.

Tuli Kupferberg


Paul told me that he and Lyle had been discussing the split that had developed in the organization behind a free thought magazine, Progressive World, and Lyle proposed to the publishers--an elderly couple from whom the publication was, in effect, being stolen--that a lively new free thought magazine should be published, and that it could be launched with their mailing list.

“With you as the editor”, Lyle added. “You’ll be perfect; the only person I know who’s neurotic enough to do it.”

Neurotic or not Paul produced a free thought magazine for the new age (I’ll get to one of my heroes, Julius Haldeman in a later chapter). The Realist cast a skeptical, cynical eye on all the things that True Believers—the kind who would be Bushites today—held dear, but always with a kind of playful undercurrent. Naturally, one of his early subjects was Albert Ellis, the maverick psychologist who had become a monthly columnist for the Independent, columns collected and published as a book, Sex Without Guilt.

“I wrote a parody for Mad magazine called Guilt Without Sex--a sex manual for adolescents” Paul told me, “but it was rejected because of its subject matter. I sold it to Playboy instead”.


My own involvement with Ellis, who died in 2007, had come about reading his books and learning how much he had offended the psychology establishment by his confrontational approach to his patients. “Why can’t you accept that some people are crazy and violent and do all sorts of terrible things?” he would berate them. “Until you accept it, you’re going to be angry, angry, angry. Success is contingent upon forgetting your god-awful past. Stop complaining and deal with it”.

He wrote his first book about love, sex, and marriage after his friends consulted him for advice which prompted him to take took a course in psychology at Columbia. When he started his practice, he quickly became known for his sexual liberalism and soon his methods had a name: Rational Emotive Therapy, whose principles he laid down in How to Live with a Neurotic. His weekly workshops on 65th St. were soon being attended by classes of up to 150 people. “I’m curing every screwball in New York, one at a time”, he observed.

Not long after I met him I was screening possible candidates to assist me in writing a new travel book and listening to the travails of one of them, Janet, struck a chord. “I know exactly who you should meet” I told her. “He’s an offbeat shrink named Albert Ellis and he could respond to all those doubts that you’ve just told me about”.

Janet took my advice, visited Albert, straightened out her head, took a psychology degree and ended up running his Institute for the next 30 years.

IN THE LATE FIFTIES, Ed Sanders (another of The Fugs) already admired for his anti-nuclear escapades, started Fuck You, a mimeographed magazine which carried such contemporary poets as Leroi Jones, W.H. Auden, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg. For a long time, the Voice called it F*** You, because the unexpurgated word never appeared in print in those days. Mailer's novels were peppered with “fug” prompting Tallulah Bankhead's famous greeting, “Oh, you're the young man who doesn't know how to spell 'fuck'”. Nevertheless, Dan Wolf banned the word from the Voice and chided me for “always writing about your friends”. I replied they’d become my friends after I wrote about them.

Having by this time dabbled my toes in the literary scene, I turned my attention to art, a subject for which Greenwich Village was at least as well known. I didn’t know much about art, nor did I know what I liked but I had a vague knowledge that John Sloan and “the Ashcan Artists” had achieved some renown in earlier years. Now in the early 1950s the predominant mode was abstract expressionism, whose reigning priest was Hans Hoffman. It was a style that held no interest for me, nor was I capable of appreciating it, although the idea of hanging out with artists held a romantic appeal. I spent minimal time in that off-duty artists' HQ, the Cedar Tavern, but made no contacts and on the solitary occasion I was taken by Voice photographer Fred McDarrah to the “Club” on Astor Place found most of the scintillating conversation to be about Provincetown real estate.

There were regular openings at the West 10th Street galleries but they were desultory affairs with cheap wine and a distinct lack of drama. The glitz was to come a decade later. I didn’t know much about art, nor did I know what I liked but already I had a vague, undefined sense that the social scene was likely to offer more possibilities than the art itself, a notion that was to be proved in spades in the years ahead.

ANY KIND OF FREELANCE work was welcome to supplement my tiny Voice stipend and luckily Frank Rasky kept me busy with interesting ideas. He called from Toronto to suggest I interview Marlene Dietrich who was dispensing advice on NBC radio, a five minute sound bite of wisdom in her unmistakable gravelly voice. I left a message with her press agent and while awaiting a call back, La Dietrich herself came on the phone and invited me up to her apartment. So with a friend to take shorthand notes, off we went to her modest pad. I remember how tidy it was and how the walls were lined with framed pictures of the men with whose her name has been linked: Jean Gabin, Erich Maria Remarque, Gary Cooper, Michael Wilding, James Stewart, John Wayne. And Ernest Hemingway who Marlene said was the person she turned to for advice. “I pick strong people to take my problems to” she said.

A few years before she had called him “the most fascinating man I know” explaining (in a magazine essay): “He is gentle as real men are gentle; without tenderness a man is uninteresting”.

In her 5-minute segments Marlene sounded confident and reassuring, her advice simple and sound.

  • To a woman who complained about having to walk her husband's dog, her advice was to think of it as “our” dog and not “his” dog. “This would greatly influence your way of arguing and might give much better results”.

  • A man of 40 who moaned about being impatient was given a message from Leonardo da Vinci: “Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold”.

  • One man, doubting the value of a mink coat for his wife, was assured that it was not only practical, serviceable and tough--rare qualities in a luxury item--but also an important symbol of emotional security. “How else can your wife state so openly that she is cherished by you, as while basking in the warmth and luxury this badge provides?” Marlene asked.

As we sat comfortably on the sofa in her Park Avenue apartment sipping at drinks, Marlene confided that even in the most miserable letters she could always find “something to guide the writer back to”. It was her belief that people's attitudes that made them unhappy or gave them with problems. “Most of them are looking inward rather than out. Many people are tempted to run away from their responsibilities and I tell them they are not alone in this”. Today, even at 102 she would probably have been a classic advice aunt.

Marlene, born in 1905 and becoming a star 25 years later with The Blue Angel, was now playing Las Vegas for $30,000 a week. “I adore that town, music plays all night, no door ever closes”.

Yes, she said, she had seen all the references to her as a glamorous grandmother and it “amused” her. People were always asking 'how do you do it?' sort of questions but she'd been pleased to find that's not what people wrote to her about.

“We haven't had a single letter about makeup and staying lovely” she said emphatically. “It just shows that people aren't as superficial as we might think. We have nothing about figures, diet, beauty--just nothing”.

Part of her legend, I had read, was that she was never caught off guard. One ladies room attendant said that she'd been watching Dietrich for 20 years and had never seen her renew her make-up.

As I watched her closely I felt that he predominant impression she gave in person was of being glamorous and she must have picked up on it somehow because glamour was her next topic. It was, she believed, within every woman's power and that being glamorous was a necessary part of every woman's armor. She shrugged off her annual presence on best-dressed lists as “accidental”.

I read out to her Eva Gabor's words “She is the real glamour. Marlene stretches her leg, a whole roomful of people jump”.

“If you're admired”, she said, “there's a stratosphere you reach where people just aren't jealous any more. It's true; women don't get jealous of me. You should see them in Las Vegas. After a show it's always the women who crowd backstage to see me. I can see them pushing their husbands along”.

She said she got a lot of questions from women whose children had grown up. “Is my mission in life over?”

“I tell them, 'A mother's mission is never over because in the back of their minds her children know she's there--and that's her role, to be there. If they're in trouble they'll turn to her.' Much of the time, Marlene said, people couldn't get back to basics. Even analysis didn't seem to help. They couldn't find their way back unless someone shakes them up. “I regard that as my job.”

I knew something of her background: that while working as a film extra in her native Berlin she’d married a young director, Rudolph Sieber, who lived on a California chicken ranch while she stayed in New York. And when columnists linked her with other men she had a standard answer: “ I consider Mr. Sieber the perfect husband and the perfect father. He is a sensible man; no matter what happens to me I can always rely on him. I see him quite a lot each year”, she added. “I make many visits out to the West Coast”.

Their daughter, the TV actress Maria Riva, along with her second husband, lived a few blocks away from Marlene, who had become a proud baby-sitter for her grandson. She cooked, too, and was good at it--“the best egg-scrambler the world has ever known” Billy Wilder once said.

But what surprised me was when Ms. Dietrich brought up the subject of astrology. It was a subject about which I was something of a naysayer and it must have showed on my face.

“Well, I'm not guided by it”, Marlene said firmly, “but I believe in it. I can't accept (the fact) that if the moon has been recognized to pull the waters back and forth like clockwork that I should escape this. Are we stronger than all the water? There's a lot about it that I don't know. There has to be. But in the countryside where people work closely with the earth, they can't do certain things when the moon is waning. To ignore these influences would be stupid”.

Was she a lonely woman, I asked, as people had claimed? “It might be lonely at times but it's a self-chosen loneliness so I can't complain about it”.

We had been in the brightly lit apartment for more than an hour and I sensed she had had enough. As we stood in the tiny lobby and Marlene got our coats out of the hall closet, my shorthand-taking assistant spoke for the first time. Did Miss Dietrich mind if she asked a question. La Dietrich smiled at her. “Of course not, dear”.

What advice could she offer to the woman who couldn't decide a career and marriage, my assistant asked? It was a subject on which she and her boy friend disagreed.

“Unless you have unusual talent” Marlene said emphatically, “I would say, 'marry, have children and don't worry about a career. People like you and me, with no extraordinary talent”--(it was astonishing the way she included herself in this statement)--“should marry. I wanted to have a child very much. Without a child a woman is nothing. If you are a scientist or a great artist with a special gift for the world, then perhaps it is possible to sacrifice your own life for your career. But what real thrill does a woman get out of a career that can compare with living for the man she loves?”

She watched us walk to the elevator and slowly closed the door.

...

NEXT:
Chapter Three—The Village Voice
More trouble with our star novelist
Lasting insignificance: the 3-dot column
Jean Shepherd’s phantom novel
ECHO  and Larry Adler
Woody Allen plays classic nerd
A sample Village Square column

...

Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.

...

comments? send an email to John Wilcock


also available on amazon.com...
Marijuana—The Weed That Changed the World


National Weed (1974, issue #3)
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Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my book, and thank you. —JW

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